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Access To Culture 

Boise Public Library meets the demand of 21st century patrons

Whether we're listening to Beethoven or the Beatles, Adam Carolla's podcast of caustic commentary or Guinness World Record-holder Roy Dotrice voicing 224 distinct characters as he narrates the audiobook of A Game of Thrones, we take our aural entertainment with us as we work, play, exercise, travel and even sleep. The way we consume our media has changed as much as the devices on which it is transmitted, and the entities that provide it--like public libraries--have had to jump on the technology train as well, or risk obsolescence.

Boise Public Library, nearing its 120th birthday, is a case study in how to successfully navigate the changing mediascape--as evidenced by the hundreds who flocked to the inaugural Library Comic Con this summer (and the thousands who visit Boise Public Library branches every day). But a weekend-long annual event isn't enough to change how people perceive and use their local library. Introducing services that work with our digital devices, however, might be.

Kevin Booe, Boise Public Library director for the past seven years, clearly understands that. The Boise Public Library offers BookMyne, which lets users search the library's catalog and even put books on hold. Then there's OverDrive, an app for downloading and listening to audiobooks. And on Oct. 17, BPL launched Freegal, a free and legal music downloading service exclusively for public libraries. It's all part of progress that libraries everywhere are embracing.

"Libraries are reinventing themselves," Booe said.

But they aren't doing it for the expected reasons.

"It's not a survival thing ... though throughout history, libraries in America have strived to survive," Booe said. "I don't think that's anything new for a public entity at all."

Booe said studies have shown that more young people are using libraries than ever, but seniors are increasingly embracing "tablet technology" as well. The changes libraries are making reflect what their users are doing: keeping up with the times.

"I think relevancy is a better [reason]. In a digital age, we're trying to find out what is the balance between digital content and hard-copy content," Booe said. "Right now, we live in a world where there are folks that want digital only, folks that want print only and folks that want both. If the library is going to be the information and content collector and the information and content provider, we have to make sure we provide that content in every format."

While Boise Public Library will continue to purchase physical CDs for the foreseeable future, there's no denying the public's desire for digital music, which the library can now provide in spades with Freegal. Owned by Library Ideas, LLC, Freegal offers "access to about 3 million songs, including Sony Music's catalog of legendary artists ... and music from over 10,000 labels with music that originates in over 60 countries." Through a user-friendly interface, people are allowed three song downloads per week and, while copyright laws obviously apply, DRM (digital rights management) concerns are a non-issue. Songs are transferable to any device (desktop computer, laptop, tablet, phone, mp3 player) and can even be burned to CD. Like most library services, it's free for cardholders. It almost sounds too good to be true--for Sarah Houghton, library director for the San Rafael Public Library in California, it was.

In 2011, Houghton penned a post titled "Just Say No to Freegal" on her blog, librarianinblack.net. In it, she candidly wrote about her bad experience with Freegal as both an administrator and a user (she was working at another library at the time), and how she believed that libraries that subscribe to Freegal create a "fundamental change in their library's collection and policy expenditures" that isn't for the better.

Houghton told Boise Weekly her feelings hadn't changed.

"I don't believe it's a good use of a library's funds," she said. "The library is buying something for a patron to keep forever and that's not how library dollars are best used, in my opinion. We buy something once, and then we loan it out to multiple people. That's how we make good use of the public's dollars. ... [Freegal] is not an efficient use of funds."

Not everyone would agree. Using models based on population or users, Freegal charges Boise Public Library, which services 220,000 people, $18,000 per year for Freegal. The Seattle Public Library, which serves 610,000 people, has been offering Freegal to its users since 2011 at a cost of $100,000 annually. Kirk Blankenship, the Seattle library's electronic resources librarian for the past 15 years, said Freegal is currently one of their "top online resources," although he didn't know how it would be received.

"We weren't sure about it at first. ... It's definitely a new model for us," Blankenship said. "But [now] we're comfortable and familiar with it and it continues to do very well," with about 12,000 downloads per month, he added. It was important to both Blankenship and Booe that any service they chose offer contemporary, popular music.

"Stuff you're hearing on the radio or seeing in the media is there. It's not old, retreaded stuff from 10 years ago," Blankenship said.

Freegal could be a huge factor in helping libraries straddle the line of old and new, physical and digital. It's already relatively popular with Boise Public Library users: In the three weeks since Freegal was launched, there have been about 1,000 song downloads by nearly 250 unique cardholders, with Sara Bareilles, Miley Cyrus, Adele, Daughtry and Daft Punk topping the list of downloaded artists.

"The library is still for the everyman," Booe said. "What we're providing [for that everyman] is an access to culture," Booe said.

And all you need is a library card.

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